Poetry on Steroids


Despite the pressures of my muse,
While writing this, I did not juice.
I might be subtler, more profound,
With cultured people’s praises crowned,
If performance enhancers I had downed.

Yet every morn I grab my pen.
I’m swinging for the fence again,
Honing mood and tone and meter,
Shunning erudite Velveeta,
While the gimlet-eyed all mutter, “Cheater.”

If offered Poet Growth Hormone,
Speaking for myself alone,
I’d shun sub-dermal shots in favor
Of a potion with robust flavor
Robert Burns was said to savor.

Boost the power of my thinkage?
Not when the tincture causes shrinkage
To my oeuvre. Tis too great a risk
I’ll be marooned on a copy desk,
My good name and my asterisk.

UPDATE: Please check the comments to this post for a poetical rebuttal from Jim U-Boat, The Poet Laureate of Calumet City, Illinois.

High School Confidential

Well, the acceptance letters from the selective enrollment public high schools in Chicago have been sent out, and there has been much rejoicing and gnashing of teeth. In our house, we’re doing the rejoicing thing. Liam has been accepted to Northside College Prep, the odds against which are very very long, even for a bright kid. The odds were so long, in fact, that we simply weren’t counting on it. It was in our list of options, of course, but that list was long and exhaustive. Realistically, we concentrated on him going to St. Ignatius, the top Catholic high school around here, which accepted him a couple weeks ago. That required me wrapping my head around a lot of issues–of faith, of my own past in Catholic schools, of finance and transportation–but I actually grew very comfortable with and excited about the idea. I’d be proud for him to go to Ignatius and do well. (I was also looking forward to eating often in nearby Little Italy, but now I’ll have to start investigating the kabob houses near Northside Prep.)

Then the public schools come through and throw our plans out of whack.

There’s no use explaining the process by which the Chicago Public Schools chooses students for their seven selective enrollment schools. Describe it to anyone who lives in any other school district, and all you’ll get is a puzzled look and a sad shake of the head. It puts more pressure on eighth graders than being accepted into college, and it breaks the hearts of a lot of B+ and A- students when they don’t get chosen for one of the 2700 openings (the official number of applicants for those openings is 12,000, but most of us suspect the number is a lot higher and the CPS keeps a lid on it because the system would look even more ridiculous and unfair than it already does). From what I gather in conversations, there’s a lot of anger and disappointment running through Liam’s eighth grade class right now. One girl spent days telling her friends that she was accepted into Walter Peyton College Prep, when in reality she wasn’t accepted into any of the schools she applied to.

And in three years we get to spin this wheel all over again when Liesel starts looking at high schools. By that time, the ground rules and playing field will be different, due to demographics and budgets and probably lawsuits against the CPS. Maybe she’ll be the one to go to St. Ignatius–the social scientist in me still wants to see one of my kids undergo a Jesuit education–or maybe by then we’ll move out of the city.

It’s still hard to believe it’s over, and that we got into the school we wanted (and frankly, we were trying our best to keep everything calm even as we pushed Liam to excel in the grades and tests that mattered). He’ll get a chance to perform at a very high level, with a school full of other motivated kids. At the same time, it’s a shame that other motivated kids in his school have the choice of paying to go to Catholic high school or going to the local public high school, which of course has suffered because the good teachers and the top students have been siphoned off to the showcase schools. And it’s a shame that they might have feelings of failure from this fiasco. The CPS could open a dozen other selective enrollment schools and fill them all, without test scores sinking very low. And what about the B or C students at regular public school? What kind of high school alternatives do they get? (Don’t answer, it’s too depressing.)

Living in the city: expensive, complicated, stressful and morally suspect.

But at least we can walk to restaurants!

UPDATE: Liam and I went to the welcome and orientation meeting last night. It was one of the happiest gatherings of people ever, because of course all our longshots came through. Saw an old friend or two whose kid proved to be an undisputed genius like Liam (even though we dads both remember when they were eating dirt on the playground). The principal of the school said that 18,000 kids take the CPS selective enrollment exam (for the 2,700 slots open), and that 6,000 applied to Northpark. Of those 6K, 277 will show up next fall as freshmen. So, for every seat in the class, 22 other bright kids are vying for the spot. Think there’s a little pent-up demand there?

Pitchers and Catchers

Okay, I’ll give in. Our coldest snowiest winter in memory is probably over, and birdies and buds will soon appear, which brings warmth to even the iciest soul. And there’s always this….


Winter’s been raw as a campout in Banff.
Your new basement walls are moldy and damp.
Your drapes caught fire from a knocked over lamp—

Pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp.

Your check-writing hand’s developed a cramp,
Your bills are all due and you ain’t got a stamp,
Creditors cling to your neck like a clamp—

Pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp.

Your yard now faces a new freeway ramp.
Your son’s engaged to a gold-digging tramp.
Your “guitar hero” neighbor’s just bought a new amp—

Life is good!
Pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp.

I posted this yesterday on Bardball even though it’s a rerun from 2008, because it’s factually true, because I like it, and because I run the site. When the baseball season really begins, we’ll be posting more poems there. And the big news is, we’re in the works to create a podcast of material, for all you folks too busy to read. So don’t forget us in the coming weeks.

Baseball Prospectus just picked the Cubs to finish first in their division, and the White Sox last, so there should be a lot of emotion running through the Windy City this summer.

On the other hand, what does the Prospectus’ Nate Silver know? Did he predict all 50 states in last year’s election? No? Only 49? Then he better go home and tweak his algorithm, as the girls at U of C probably told him a time or two.

“Rod Blagojevich, Superstar”

Whenever I’m tempted to ditch this city and go live in a yurt somewhere, I think of nights like I had last night, during which I saw history being made, and I realize that quiet and peace of mind aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Last night I was lucky enough to attend the press preview of a new show at Second City e.t.c. that was ripped out of today’s papers. “Rod Blagojevich, Superstar” was one of the funniest nights I have ever spent in the theater. When it finds its permanent slot in the schedule, you absolutely have to go see it. You will be amazed at how effortlessly one man’s life provided the grist for a ridiculous 60 minutes of lampoonery.

I don’t mean to imply that the people behind the show didn’t work their butts off to get it up on stage. Ed Furman, the book writer, is an old friend from performing days. He told me their first email with the idea was dated January 5. That was only a month after the Senate Seat Sale Scandal broke, and a couple weeks before Blago’s media blitz and impeachment. Who knows how they’ll be able to amend the show in the future?

Ed’s writing did a terrific job capturing Blago’s strange combination of Willie Stark and Astro Boy. Getting the psychology right was more important than crafting an impersonation (although Joey Bland was greatly entertaining in the role, as was his wig). My favorite line of the night was Blago shouting at Roland Burris in all sincerity, “All great leaders have criminal charges filed against them!” (Burris’ reply: “Um, no they don’t.”)

The truly amazing part of the show was how little everyone had to gin up the characters to maximize the laughs. The only character pushed really far into caricature was a toilet-mouthed Patti Blagojevich (and for all I know, it may have been an accurate portrayal). By laying out Blago’s gall, ego and blindness in very clear and simple scenes (with a few terrific songs thrown in), Furman and the cast captured perfectly the strange, pathetic, puny life of the would-be Populist Scrapper.

In the audience I saw at least three veteran reporters from the papers and TV, so there were certainly more there that I didn’t recognize. I got to see WSJ reporter Bryan Gruley, who went to my high school and has a new mystery novel coming out next month. Also in attendance was Ill Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who laughed through the whole show, even at Lauren Dowden’s pinched-mouth impersonation of her. Madigan shook hands all around and hung out with the cast and writers for a very long time, posing for pictures and the like. (There’ll probably be some pics up for that eventually at Second City’s website here.)

The whispers beforehand, though, were whether the ex-Governor was going to show up for the event. He’d been invited, of course, and everyone agreed he had the gall to attend (and nothing left to lose, obviously). He didn’t show up last night, but I’m betting he eventually shows up. His ego would allow nothing less.

Having a Blast at the Movies

As our planned Saturday excursion fell through, due to the ridiculously warm weather in Chicago (I don’t like or desire 50 degree days in February — they’re just plain ugly), I took the family and my nephews to see “Coraline” in 3D. We decided to go to the 4:00 show, just in case the flick was too intense for the kids under 10. It was a very good movie, although a seat closer to the middle of the theater would’ve been nicer, to take advantage of the 3D to the utmost. The show was a sellout, the place packed with families and young adults on dates. I still can’t get used to seeing movies in the daytime, even when the weather is miserable or I’m trapped in another city with nothing to do. But whatever. I know it’s a rather quaint notion that a matinee should make you feel guilty. It’s also old-fashioned to think that you should filter a child’s intake of movies to match their maturity level, as all the parents who bring their toddlers to slasher movies will attest. Such a fuddy-duddy I am!

But the trailers! Ah, me, if a kid (or any other sane person) can sit through the movie trailers on the big screen and not feel assaulted, then let him or her watch whatever’s playing. Zombie Nazi porn starring Paris Hilton, for all I care. If you can make it through the trailers relatively pain-free, your synapses have been fused to such a degree that you should be sent into space to fight for our species’ survival, like in “Alien II.” You can take it, you’re an interplanetary Marine.

We were shown one trailer on Saturday for a new animated movie called “9”. Presented by legendary Tim Burton and visionary filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (which means I guess, that the film will have three endings, all unsatisfying, and all involving balletic explosion sequences), “9” is some post-apocalyptic thingie about a homunculus created by a scientst to carry on the human “spirit” in the desolate landscape. If you like your trailers to give you vertigo, then I’m sure you’ll love the movie. But the sound! The volume had to be cranked up to at least 80 decibels! My shirt was vibrating from the noise!

Sure, ol’ Grandpa Finn Garner does have his hearing problems, and he got them from, all together now kids……excessive noise!

But that excessive noise was experienced in punk bars and at Ramones concerts, places we all knew would be loud. By the ripe old age of 19, I had permanent damage and a ringtone in my ears that makes the world sound like bacon frying in a pan. It sucks, but I did it to myself.

On the other hand, one wouldn’t expect a movie trailer to leave one bleeding from one’s ears — perhaps one should just stick with the TV from now on.

Daily Beatles Video? Rah-THER!

My Brother Hungerdunger Stu Shea has started a new project to harness the awesome power of Youtube. Every day, he plans to post a video with information about that day in Beatles history. Here’s the first installment:

We ‘Dungers have been talking for months about how to take advantage of the brave new world to further our book sales, careers and general income levels. Stu is the first to dive head first into the video posting scene, to help promote his Beatles book FAB FOUR FAQ, plus the other Beatles books that will be bubbling out of him in the years to come. I think it’s an excellent synthesis of his skills at reporting, writing, singing and playing. So please tune him in. There might not be a lot of funny shots to the crotch, but you never know.